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Dressing Figaros

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by dpm (subscribe)
dpm is a Birmingham-based freelancer with experience of arts and lifestyle features.
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From Rocky Horror to Figaro opera
Costume designer Sue Blane is seeing triple this spring as she dresses three Figaros in three different operas.

Sue, who has worked with internationally renowned theatre, opera and dance companies for more than 40 years and is probably best known for designing the costumes for The Rocky Horror Show, is designing a whole season of Welsh National Opera productions.

And the spring 2016 trilogy has one theme in common the character of Figaro. The season begins with a new production of Rossini's comic opera The Barber of Seville, in which Figaro is the eponymous barber. This is followed by Mozart's comedy of manners The Marriage of Figaro. And to complete the trio, WNO is premiering Figaro Gets a Divorce composed by Elena Langer with a libretto by the company's artistic director David Pountney.

Welsh National Opera, WNO, Barber of Seville. Rossini, Birmingham, Cardiff, opera
WNO perform The Barber of Seville

To make the challenge for Sue even greater, all three operas are set in different periods, have different tones and have different directors.

But it's a task Sue has relished. "It is a big challenge because all three operas have the same set which is very contemporary, quite minimalist and very striking which means the costumes need to story-tell visually," she says. "The costumes need to make each production stand out on its own while also making very strong connections between all three.

"The Barber of Seville is the funniest of the three with Figaro a really larger than life character so I wanted this production to have a bit of the variety hall about it. The costumes are actually quite classic but if you asked me to state a period I would say 1950s. Sam Brown the director and I felt very strongly they should have plenty of colour so they are incredibly colourful.

"With Marriage of Figaro, the director Tobias Richter wanted to emphasis the story as actually being very contemporary. It may be more than 200 years old but the storyline, in which people mistake love for lust and cause all that confusion, still exists today and he wanted to explore the longevity of that storyline.

For me Mozart's music deserves some big reference to the 18th century whilst also making it contemporary. What I really wanted was costumes which are very beautiful and great fun but with a wild factor in a really big way.

"Figaro Gets a Divorce is another matter entirely. This piece is very strongly theatrical and visually powerful. The music is extraordinarily beautiful. It's operatic but for me it's also swing meets classical and modern. Director and librettist David Pountney sets it in the 1930s but it's the 1930s with a real edge to it. With Divorce it is more muted and we've been able to buy more clothes off-the-peg but they have a really three-dimensional feel to them with an almost film like quality."

With three such varied operas, Sue has been keen to find the common threads.

"To directly connect all three operas in costume seemed to me too restrictive and actually a bit illogical but I think it's in the details that you see the connections," she says. "For example all of the principal roles have real colour to them. There are some overlaps in the cast but many of the roles are sung by different people in the operas so they immediately look very different and yet will have this connection."

Welsh National Opera, WNO, Mozart, The Marriage of Figaro, Sue Blane, Birmingham, Cardiff
Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro

To realise the final outfits, Sue has worked very closely with the costume department at Welsh National Opera.

"They are a fantastic team," says Sue. "I rely very heavily on their technical expertise and experience to realise my ideas. My drawings are very much what the end costume looks like but it needs people with real technical knowledge to achieve that. The drawings are very much my own and the costumes themselves are a team effort."

And Sue certainly gave her colleagues some difficult tasks.

"We actually hit a snag really early on," she admits. "But the team came up with an ingenious solution.

"With the Barber of Seville the idea is that the whole male population of Seville are actually barbers the point being that Figaro is the best of the lot. So I wanted to really pull out the stops for the barbers and have the cast to have the feel of a barber shop quartet. So I was looking for lots of different stripes to reflect the idea of barber shop singers.

"Now you would think there would be loads of fabrics out there we could use but we just couldn't find the type and depth of fabric that we needed. I didn't want them all to look like cotton deck chairs!

"So the solution the team came up with was ribbons. They decided to sew ribbons onto all the costumes. But there must be about 18 or 19 of these costumes so it turned into this massive labour of love to get them all done. In fact if we had known what a massive task it was going to be I'm not sure they would have done it!"

Sue also took inspiration from the stage sets by Ralph Koltai, one of the foremost theatre designers of the past few decades. Now in his nineties, Ralph has created around 250 different productions across the globe.

It was a happy reunion for the two theatre stalwarts.

"Ralph and I go back a very long way," Sue recalls. "I was at Central School of Art and Design in 1969 and Ralph was the head of the theatre design course, as it was then. He was my head tutor and taught me for three years and we've always kept in touch over the years. In short bursts at a time I have also assisted him on some of his designs.

"I have all the time in the world for him, not only is he a real genius of the theatre, he is also a lovely and charming man. His work has been spectacularly important in the world of theatre design since the 1960s and 1970s. He really put modern theatre design on the map. It has been wonderful working with him again on these productions.

"I had photos of the designs and I had seen Ralph's models of the set and then bits kept appearing during the rehearsals," she says. "It is an incredible set. The pieces are huge and with some very powerful imagery for the characters to stand against. I needed to bear that in mind when I was creating the costume designs."

Welsh National Opera, WNO, David Pountney, Figaro Gets a Divorce, Sue Blane
WNO's Figaro Gets a Divorce

Sue has worked for a host of top companies including English National Opera, National Theatre, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Glyndebourne, Disney and Royal Shakespeare Company but she is perhaps best known for creating the iconic Rocky Horror costumes. First designed for the 1973 London stage production The Rocky Horror Show, she then re-worked those costumes for the 1975 film The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

While the dramatic outfits immediately cemented her reputation as a costume designer to be reckoned with, it was not without its price.

"Rocky Horror Show haunted me for a while," she admits, "I had done work for all kinds of theatre companies, people like the Royal Opera House, Citizens Theatre and Scottish Opera, but I was still typecast as the woman who did the costumes for Rocky Horror Show. I did then get to a point in my career where it was once again just one of the many productions I had worked on but for a time I felt I couldn't escape it. But now I can appreciate it and it will never be regretted."

"I have always loved it and I try to see it whenever I can. I am incredibly proud of it and amazed to see that it still works brilliantly as a piece of theatre. It's still huge and is performed all over the world. I love it when I see teenagers all dressed up for it and out in public. You can be catching the train to Manchester and find yourself sitting by someone dressed up to see The Rocky Horror Show who hasn't got a fear in the world."

With Rocky Horror Show being such a huge part of Sue's life she admits there will always be a bit of that inspiration in her creativity.

"Rocky Horror Show is totally wild and I think there are always influences of it in my work but then that's because they are my designs so they were influenced by me in the first place! I am not sure you can really separate the two. It is obvious to anyone seeing those costumes that I had a really naff sense of humour and I still do. There is a lot of me in those designs and I think I still carry through that ethos that costumes should be fun into whatever roles I am designing for and whether it is theatre, ballet, opera, film or anything.

"What you wear is so important it's what keeps you grounded. If you go out in the morning and you realise you've got the wrong pair of shoes on you think about it all day and it affects how you feel about yourself. It's the same with characters on stage. No matter how drab the costume or the part they are playing they still need to feel sexy and confident. Even if you are playing the part of a sloppy old gardener, you need to feel right. You need the confidence to know you look good and then you can really give something to the audience. "

"Good clothes, and good costumes are essential if you know you look good, you can face the world."

Welsh National Opera's Figaro Forever season plays Birmingham Hippodrome between 1-5 March and then tours to Llandudno, Bristol, Southampton and Milton Keynes and Plymouth until 9 April. See for more information.

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Why? A triple dose of Figaro
When: until Feb 5
Phone: 0121 338 5000
Where: Birmingham Hippodrome
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